24 Sep 2014

Crunch time: minister champions the British apple

Environment Minister Liz Truss says she “will not rest until the British apple is back at the top of the tree”. So what are growers here doing to compete with imports from other countries?

Environment Minister Liz Truss says she

Most apples we eat in Britain are imported, with home-grown produce competing for a place on the supermarket shelf with varieties including Pink Lady and Golden Delicious.

Production of apples here has more than halved in the last 35 years – “the orchard is now a rare sight,” according to Ms Truss in an article in the Times – despite a climate conducive to growing.

Growers began to face competition from elsewhere in Europe when Britain joined the EEC in 1973. They found it hard to keep up with high-yielding varieties grown in warmer climates, such as Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious.

The transformation of the industry has been electrifying. Adrian Barlow, English Apples and Pears

It was tough to compete with foreign growers whose emphasis was very much on yield rather than taste, and the result was British orchards being taken out of production.

If you can’t beat them …

In the early 1990s, the tide began to turn. For British growers, it became a matter of “if you can’t beat them, join them”: varieties like Gala and Braeburn (from New Zealand) had become popular with British consumers, and growers responded by planting them here.

These varieties have two advantages over tradtional English apples like Cox’s. They may not be able to compete on taste grounds, but their yield is considerably higher (they are easier to grow) and nearly all meet the EU’s designated “class 1” status.

The results have been impressive: in 2003: 23 per cent of apples sold here were grown here; this figure has grown to 38 per cent, and the industry is aiming to achieve 65 per cent in the future.

Environment Minister Liz Truss says she

(Cooking apples grown in a garden in north east London)

Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples and Pears, told Channel 4 News: “We were falling behind the rest of the world in terms of our productivity, and therefore our apples needed to be sold at a higher price than imports that began to hit us in 1973.”

Following the decison to grow overseas varieties of apple in Britain, “the transformation of the industry has been electrifying”.

Mr Barlow said growers understood that the supermarkets, which are responsible for 80 per cent of apple sales, were operating in a competitive environment.

Remarkable renaissance

He said their relationship with the big retailers was good, but that suppliers needed to make a “reasonable return” – so “this remarkable renaissance in the English apple industry” could continue.

“It is not an industry in crisis. We have made huge progress, but there is plenty of potential for further progress and this is what we are aiming to achieve.”